Decaying neon Silver Dragon latest addition to Montreal Signs Project

The latest additions to Concordia professor Matt Soar's Montreal Signs Project include the decaying neon from a Chinese cafe in the Southwest borough and a pair of Solari boards from the mothballed Mirabel airport.

Vintage sign collection links Montrealers to the city's history

Matt Soar hopes to restore the chipped and peeling neon sign from the Silver Dragon restaurant on de l'Église Avenue that came down earlier this month, 60 years after it was first erected. (Jay Turnbull/CBC)

Are you one of the residents of Montreal's Southwest borough who's been wondering what happened to the Silver Dragon Chinese restaurant's decaying neon sign?

Have no fear. Matt Soar has rescued it.

The sign from the Silver Dragon restaurant on De l'Église Avenue in Montreal's Côte-Saint-Paul neighbourhood. (Google )

The Mets Chinois sign went up on the corner of De L'Église and Laurendeau streets 60 years ago this month, Soar's research found. It came down just weeks ago.

"It's full of dead pigeons and birds' nests and broken neon and peeling paint," said the Concordia University professor of communication studies. "But I think it has some amazing stories to tell."

The Silver Dragon sign is a classic example of open-channel neon signage, says Matt Soar. (CBC)

Soar understands intrinsically how passionately people feel about the signs that grace the city.

One of the first things he noticed when he moved to Montreal more than a decade ago was the sheer number of signs.

Soar, who also has a background in graphic design, became interested in the esthetics of the signs, and soon he began collecting them.

He founded the Montreal Signs Project and began actively seeking landmark signs across the city.

"A lot of people in the city care about some of the signs in really interesting kinds of ways," he says.

Monsieur Hot Dog was the place to go for students at Concordia's Loyola campus who were looking for a cheap lunch. (CBC)

Signs of the times

Close to a dozen old signs adorn the walls of the communication studies and journalism building on the university's Loyola campus.

Each has a story to tell, Soar says.

The original Monkland Tavern sign dates back to the 1940s. It had to come down because, without the 'e' on the end, the sign contravened Quebec's Law 101. (CBC)

There's the Monkland Tavern sign on the main floor.

It's a trendy restaurant now, but the tavern used to be a smoky watering hole where men would rub elbows and argue about politics and the Montreal Canadiens.

The sign graces the wall thanks, in part, to the language police. Missing an 'e' on the end, the spelling contravened the province's signage laws and had to be removed.

Soar believes the iconic sign dates back to the 1940s.

The old Warshaw sign is a classic - the font instantly recognizable as the first letter of the store that was a mainstay on Saint-Laurent Boulevard. (CBC)

The Warshaw Supermarket on St-Laurent Boulevard served customers for close to fifty years before shutting its doors in 2002.

Soar believes the giant red letters date back to the 1950s. A sprawling pharmacy has taken its place.

And Bens Restaurant was a downtown staple for nearly a century until it closed in 2006.

Its smoked meat drew prime ministers, movie stars, Montreal Canadiens and even Leonard Cohen.

The building is gone, but the famous sign lives on at Concordia.

The sign from Sheinart's dress shop, which graced the women's clothing store on Atwater Avenue, is made of welded stainless steel. The much-loved store closed in 2013. (CBC)

Soar said the signs project has people talking.

"As we collect signs that have local meaning and people see them, it just opens up a whole conversation about how they were made, who made them, where they were made, where they were situated," Soar said.

"Then [come] the stories that people have about the neighbourhoods, about the businesses associated with the signs."

Solari boards added to collection

Among Soar's latest treasures are two message boards saved from the Mirabel airport.

The Solari boards, manufactured in Italy, were used in train stations, airports and bus terminals around the globe. Now, they are a dying breed. 

Analog Solari boards like this one were first introduced in Europe in the late 1950s. They were still state-of-the-art technology when Mirabel International Airport opened in the 1970s. (CBC)

"They are hopelessly out of date. This is really kind of dinosaur technology at this point," said Soar.

But, he says, watching — and listening — to the flapping board has a calming effect.

"It's an amazing thing. Once we got these signs working again, the sound is quite evocative. If we have the door open people come down to have a listen. People just light up and adore them."

Art show in the works

That sound hooked Danica Evering, an art student and a research assistant on the Montreal Signs Project who's been learning about the nuts and bolts of the signs as the team worked to get them working again.

Danica Evering is helping to curate an art exhibit featuring the two analog Solari boards salvaged from Mirabel airport. She's helped to get the flap display working again. (CBC)

"They have a life of their own," she said.

"It seems as if the board is talking to you, in a way. Its different parts have a way of dancing that I really think is magical."

Evering is helping curate an art exhibit involving the two Solari boards which will tell the history of the Mirabel Airport.

Soar plans on making them a fixture at Concordia.

"My sincere hope is that we'll be able to bring them back to the building here, and we'll be able to install them permanently," he said.

"They will become part of what's known now as the internet of things, so you'll be able to use an app on your phone or tweet to them, and your message will actually come up on display."

What stories do these signs conjure up for you? Add your comments, below.

The CBC sign once topped Radio-Canada/CBC's old Montreal headquarters on Dorchester Street West. (CBC)


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